What I got 18 years ago was fairly typical of the Pebble Beach experience: a glorious day, a 5 ½-hour round, the jaw-dropping beauty that begins at the par-4 fourth – and the long stretch of underrated holes, the Pebble nobody talks about. What makes this course one of America’s best isn’t its proximity to the Pacific, the sea lions or Clint Eastwood. From a strategic standpoint, original architects Jack Neville and Douglas Grant created a subtle masterpiece, a place where the exceptionally small greens can feel like moving targets in a two- or three-club breeze.
When prepared with a certain amount of discretion, Pebble Beach is the ideal U.S. Open venue, and U.S. Golf Association setup man Mike Davis has all the dials in all the right places this week. The concept of “graduated rough” has been advanced to include a greater variance of length – some spots six or seven yards off the fairway will be much more difficult than others. Davis has also mandated that the greens not be mowed to as low a level as possible. Longer grass should mean fewer bumps, and in placing additional emphasis on rolling the greens, Pebble’s putting surfaces will still be played at near-frightening speeds.
After watching Zach Johnson toil on the practice green for about 10 minutes Tuesday, I’m more convinced than ever that this year’s U.S. Open champion will hole more than his share of 10- and 15-footers. Four days of clear skies and zero percent chance of rain (10 percent on Saturday) guarantee us firm fairways, so shorter hitters such as Johnson and Jim Furyk have a far better chance than, say, last year at Bethpage.
Mega-bomber Dustin Johnson has won back-to-back tournaments at Pebble on the PGA Tour’s dead-of-winter visit, but the Tour doesn’t roll the greens in early February, nor is the texture of the grounds even remotely similar to that of mid-June.
Instead of the aerial contest we see at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, the competitive balance of this U.S. Open will evolve largely around the ground game. Five or six of the driving alleys, most notably at the par-5 sixth and par-4 ninth, require a shot of viable shape, not only to hit a decent approach, but to keep the ball in play. “I’m probably going to hit just a handful of drivers out there,” said three-time U.S. Open champion Tiger Woods, for whom the longest club in the bag has caused the biggest headaches.
John Hawkins appears on Golf Central every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET and on the Grey Goose 19th Hole every Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET.
All of which takes us back to those tiny greens. “I don’t want to play aggressive off the tee,” said Phil Mickelson, who has downplayed the importance of distance this week. “I want to play aggressive at the pins.”
At an average of 3,300 square feet, Pebble’s greens are about one-third the size of those at many modern venues. Short-side misses will almost certainly lead to bogeys. Those with mediocre short games have little chance of contending – Lee Westwood and Hunter Mahan, two superb ball-strikers who chip poorly, come to mind. Mickelson, Woods and Ernie Els, all terrific around the greens, are likely to factor, but by Sunday evening, a player who best combines accuracy off the tee with the ability to economize strokes close to the hole will hoist the grand prize Sunday night.
Zach Johnson, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker – at least two of those three guys will be in the mix entering the final nine.